By Mark A. Gabriel
Western Area Power Administration (WAPA), a power marketing administration within the Department of Energy, markets and transmits more than 40 billion kilowatt hours of federal hydropower through an integrated 17,000-plus circuit mile transmission system across 15 midwestern and western states. I have been Western’s administrator for about five months. It was clear to me before I accepted the job, and it is even clearer now, that our challenge and opportunity as an organization is to prepare for a new energy future. I believe there are five key areas we need to focus on as we prepare for that future.
1.) Strategic planning: our roadmap
As Western looks to help power the new energy frontier, we need to create a clear vision of our role in the industry, with our customers and within the Federal government for the future. To that end, Western is collaborating with customers, stakeholders, DOE and employees to develop a strategic roadmap that will serve as the agency's directional guide through 2024. This roadmap will encapsulate our anticipation of what will occur in the future--which includes new market designs in the West, increased distributed and intermittent generation resources, new technologies and increased compliance regulations—in order to tie together our strategy, capital budgets, annual targets and initiatives; and ensure we continue to provide the best value to meet our customers' needs over time. Through this roadmap, we seek to protect and enhance the execution of our mission by integrating best practices, developing and maintaining beneficial partnerships and evolving Western's services to meet customer needs in a changing environment. We expect to complete the strategic roadmap in the spring.
2.) Becoming a data-driven organization
We must have a line of sight between our strategy and safe and reliable system operations to be good stewards of our investments. We know that Western’s transmission system is aging, but age alone is not necessarily an indicator of system health. To make wise decisions about our equipment, we must have a comprehensive, systematic, data-driven asset management program that provides the information required to use our assets to deliver optimal value commensurate with our goals and anticipates our needs. Currently, Western is working to improve its asset management practices by formalizing and standardizing how Western collects, documents and processes asset data across the agency, calculates probability of failure and consequences, creates schedules for optimal maintenance work and makes recommendations for asset replacement or retirement. This more mature program will become the foundation for identifying, evaluating and articulating a sustainable capital program need and will provide an accurate record of asset condition, replacement strategies and sustained costs to support investment needs. We are focusing on three core assets initially—transmission line segments, breakers and power transformers—and plan to incorporate other assets over time.
Western, like all utilities and balancing authority operators, has a core responsibility to keep the lights on. That responsibility is becoming ever more challenging as more and more variable energy resources are added to the mix, distributed generation continues to increase, compliance with North American Electric Reliability Corporation standards becomes more stringent every year and an epoch of severe storms batters away at the grid. We must focus on two prongs of reliability. First, we need to ensure our existing infrastructure is operated and maintained to achieve optimal performance. That includes everything from rigorous asset management programs, sound vegetation management programs and technological enhancements. Second, we must plan and develop new transmission infrastructure in the right places. Numerous studies have identified the lack of adequate transmission capacity as a major hindrance in the development of new renewable energy sources. The important questions are, “which transmission projects and who will pay for them?” Western recovers all its costs through cost-based rates that are as low as practicable consistent with sound business principles. Each project and every investment is structured so that the beneficiary pays.
4.) Operations in a changing market environment
As intermittent and distributed generation resources continue to increase, the transmission system will be relied upon in increasingly important and new ways. We must be prepared technologically, economically and operationally for the opportunities changing markets will create to operate the transmission system in a different manner than how it was originally envisioned and constructed. We must anticipate those changes to take advantage of the opportunities. It is clear that new market designs are coming to the West, and whatever form they take, they will create opportunities for grid operators to work together and communicate more.
5.) Human capital management
In dispatch centers and offices, at substations and on the lines, all this work requires good people. Like the rest of the industry, Western is increasingly concerned about its aging workforce and the growing percentage eligible for retirement, particularly in the mission-critical craft fields responsible for transmission system operation and maintenance. We have recently initiated a new leadership development program targeted at mid-level leaders. We are also working to develop new student programs to help develop the pool of young people interested in our industry and bring them on board.
Interwoven across all of these areas is Western's desire and continued commitment to customer service, efficient operations and providing reliable, renewable, cost-based power and related services. Work in all these areas will contribute to strengthening Western's ability to provide service to its customers, ensure economic stability and security and participate in the new energy frontier.
In April, Mark A. Gabriel started his new job as the administrator of the Western Area Power Administration in Lakewood, Colo., one of four power marketing administrations overseen by the U.S. Department of Energy.